The Marriage Feast at Cana, ca. 1498–1500
Juan de Flandes (Netherlandish, active Spain by 1496, died 1519)
Oil on panel; 8 1/4 x 6 1/4 in. (21 x 15.9 cm)
The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982 (1982.60.20)
The marriage feast is set at a sparsely laid table in an open loggia. Christ blesses the water being poured from a pitcher into one of four large pots by the wine steward, thereby enacting the first of his miracles, the changing of the water into wine. The Virgin, who has called attention to the lack of wine, looks in his direction, her hands in prayer. At the far side of the table, the groom and the bride face each other, a cloth of honor and a bull's-eye mirror hanging on the wall behind them. The bearded man at the picture's right edge, carrying a large covered cup, is probably the master of the feast, who, upon tasting the wine, complimented the groom for having saved the best until the last. The man outside the loggia who engages the viewer's glance directly is thought to be a self-portrait of the artist.
Remarkably well-preserved, this small panel painting is one of the great treasures of the Linsky Collection. It is one of forty-seven panels that were commissioned about 1500 by Isabella the Catholic, queen of Castile and León, who a few years earlier had sponsored Christopher Columbus's expeditions. Presumably the panels were intended for a portable altarpiece for personal devotion, though there is reason to believe it was not completed by the time of the queen's death in 1504. The panels were dispersed by sale in 1505 when thirty-two of them, including the present one, were bought by Diego Flores, probably acting as agent for Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, whom he served as treasurer. She had them in her palace in Mechelen by 1516, and they were there admired in 1521 by no less a critic than Albrecht Dürer, who recorded in his journal that he had never seen anything equal to them in "purity and quality."
At Margaret's death in 1530, the painting passed to her nephew the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, who sent it to Spain, along with nineteen others incorporated in a lavish silver-gilt frame, as a gift for his wife, Isabella of Portugal. It is next recorded in an inventory of 1598 made at the Palacio Real, Madrid, upon the death of Isabella's son, Philip II, king of Spain. Fifteen of these panels are in the Museo del Palacio Real today. The Marriage Feast at Cana had been separated from them by 1857 at the latest and appeared, along with The Temptation of Christ, another panel from the series, in the 1895 sale of the collection of the prince of Fondi, Naples. It is possible that both works were given to the first prince of Fondi by Charles III, king of the Two Sicilies, in 1759 when the latter succeeded to the Spanish throne. The Marriage Feast and The Temptation remained together until 1967.
Paintings by Juan de Flandes, who trained in Flanders, probably in Bruges, but whose activity is not known outside Spain, are exceedingly rare. Of the twenty-five panels by the artist that have been recognized as being from the altarpiece, only two remained in private hands, and The Marriage Feast is by far the better. His other principal works are but three, all large retables: one for Palencia Cathedral (still in situ), another for the Church of San Lázaro, Palencia (divided between the Museo del Prado, Madrid, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and a third, for the University of Salamanca, that has been dismantled.
The Museum is fortunate to have representative paintings from two phases of Juan de Flandes's career. The Marriage Feast at Cana and Christ Appearing to His Mother (22.60.58) were both commissioned by Isabella the Catholic when Juan de Flandes worked as her court artist. For the Saints Michael and Francis (58.132), Juan adapted his style to Spanish taste. This painting probably was produced for a large retable painted around 1505–10.